A young man's recounting of the story of St Peter leads him from despair to a euphoric sense of the unbroken chain between past and present in Chekhov's short story, The Student
At first the weather was fine and calm. Thrushes sang and in the marshes close by some living creature hummed plaintively, as if blowing into an empty bottle. A woodcock flew over and a shot rang out, echoing cheerfully in the spring air. But when darkness fell on the forest, an unwelcome, bitingly cold wind blew up from the east and everything became quiet. Ice needles formed on puddles and the forest became uninviting, bleak and empty. It smelt of winter.
Ivan Velikopolsky, a theology student and parish priest’s son, was returning home along the path across the water meadows after a shooting expedition. His fingers were numb and his face burned in the wind. It seemed that this sudden onset of cold had destroyed order and harmony in all things, putting Nature herself in fear and making the evening shadows thicken faster than was necessary. All was deserted and somehow particularly gloomy. Only in the widows’ vegetable plots by the river did a light gleam. Far around, though, where the village stood about three miles away, everything was completely submerged in the chill evening mists. The student remembered that when he left home his mother had been sitting barefoot on the floor of the hall, cleaning the samovar, while his father lay coughing on the stove. As it was Good Friday no cooking was done at home and he felt starving. Shrinking from the cold, the student thought of similar winds blowing in the time of Ryurik, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great – during their reigns there had been the same grinding poverty and hunger. There had been the same thatched roofs with holes in them, the same ignorance and suffering, the same wilderness all around, the same gloom and feeling of oppression. All these horrors had been, existed now and would continue to do so. The passing of another thousand years would bring no improvement. He didn’t feel like going home.
The vegetable plots were called ‘widows’ because they were kept by two widows, mother and daughter. A bonfire was burning fiercely, crackling and lighting up the ploughed land far around. Widow Vasilisa, a tall, plump old woman in a man’s sheepskin coat, was standing gazing pensively at the fire. Her short, pock-marked, stupid-faced daughter Lukerya was sitting on the ground washing a copper pot and some spoons. Clearly they had just finished supper. Men’s voices could be heard – some local farm-workers were watering their horses at the river.
‘So, winter’s here again,’ the student said as he approached the bonfire. ‘Good evening.’
Vasilisa shuddered, but then she recognized the student and gave him a welcoming smile.
‘Heavens, I didn’t know it was you,’ she said. ‘That means you’ll be a rich man one day.’
They started talking. Vasilisa, a woman of the world, once a wet-nurse to some gentry and then a nanny, had a delicate way of speaking and she always smiled gently, demurely. But her daughter Lukerya, a peasant woman who had been beaten by her husband, only screwed up her eyes at the student and said nothing. She had a strange expression, as if she were a deaf-mute.
‘It was on a cold night like this that the Apostle Peter warmed himself by a fire,’ the student said, stretching his hands towards the flames. ‘That is to say, it was cold then as well. Oh, what a terrible night that was, Grandma! A dreadfully sad, never-ending night!’
He peered into the surrounding darkness, violently jerked his head and asked, ‘I suppose you were at the Twelve Readings from the Gospels yesterday?’
‘Yes,’ Vasilisa replied.
‘You’ll remember, during the Last Supper, Peter said to Jesus, ‘‘I am ready to go with Thee, both into prison and to death.’’ And the Lord replied, ‘‘I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.’’ After the Supper, Jesus prayed in the garden, in mortal agony, while poor Peter was downhearted and his eyes grew heavy. He couldn’t fight off sleep, and he slept. Then, as you know, Judas kissed Jesus on that night and betrayed him to the torturers. They led him bound to the High Priest and they beat him, while Peter, exhausted and sorely troubled by anguish and fear – he didn’t have enough sleep, you understand – and in expectation of something dreadful taking place on earth at any moment, followed them. He loved Jesus passionately, to distraction, and now, from afar, he could see them beating him.’
Lukerya put the spoons down and stared intently at the student. ‘They went to the High Priest,’ he continued, ‘they started questioning Jesus and meanwhile the workmen, as it was so cold, had made a fire in the middle of the hall and were warming themselves. Peter stood with them by the fire, warming himself as well, as I am now. One woman who saw him said, ‘‘This man was also with Jesus.’’ So she really meant that this man too had to be led away for questioning. And all the workmen around the fire must have looked at him suspiciously and sternly, as he was taken aback and said, ‘‘I know him not.’’ Soon afterwards someone recognized him as one of Jesus’s disciples and said, ‘‘Thou also wast with Him.’’ But again he denied it and for the third time someone turned to him and asked, ‘‘Did I not see you in the garden with Him this day?’’ He denied him for the third time. And straight after that a cock crowed and as he looked on Jesus from afar Peter remembered the words he had spoken to him at supper. He remembered, his eyes were opened, he left the hall and wept bitterly. As it is said in the Gospels, ‘‘And he went out, and wept bitterly.’’ I can imagine that quiet, terribly dark garden, those dull sobs, barely audible in the silence . . .’
The student sighed and became deeply pensive. Still smiling, Vasilisa suddenly broke into sobs and large, copious tears streamed down her cheeks. She shielded her face from the fire with her sleeve as if ashamed of her tears, while Lukerya stared at the student and blushed. Her face became anguished and tense, like someone stifling a dreadful pain.
The workmen were returning from the river and one of them, on horseback, was quite near and the light from the bonfire flickered on him. The student wished the widows goodnight and moved on. Again darkness descended and his hands began to freeze. A cruel wind was blowing – winter had really returned with a vengeance and it did not seem as if Easter Sunday was only the day after tomorrow.
Now the student thought of Vasilisa: she had wept, so everything that had happened to Peter on that terrible night must have had some special significance for her.
He glanced back. The solitary fire calmly flickered in the darkness and no one was visible near it. Once again the student reflected that, since Vasilisa had wept and her daughter had been deeply touched, then obviously what he had just been telling them about events centuries ago had some significance for the present, for both women, for this village, for himself and for all people. That old woman had wept, but not at his moving narrative: it was because Peter was close to her and because she was concerned, from the bottom of her heart, with his most intimate feelings.
His heart suddenly thrilled with joy and he even stopped for a moment to catch his breath. ‘The past,’ he thought, ‘is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events, each flowing from the other.’ He felt that he had just witnessed both ends of this chain. When he touched one end, the other started shaking.
After crossing the river by ferry and climbing the hill, he looked at his native village and towards the west, where a narrow strip of cold crimson sunset was glimmering. And he reflected how truth and beauty, which had guided human life there in the garden and the High Priest’s palace and had continued unbroken to the present, were the most important parts of the life of man, and of the whole of terrestrial life. A feeling of youthfulness, health, strength – he as only twenty-two – and an inexpressibly sweet anticipation of happiness, of a mysterious unfamiliar happiness, gradually took possession of him. And life seemed entrancing, wonderful and endowed with sublime meaning.